The anxious kid’s guide to beating exam stress

You know it’s anxiety when your kid is more irritable than normal, has trouble sleeping, finds it hard to focus, or feels lethargic. But you can help him manage his exam performance fears so that he stays calm on the big day.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Make sure he has a healthy lifestyle

Good lifestyle habits go a long way towards helping kids manage anxiety.

“Regular cardiovascular exercise – 20 minutes, three times a week – helps the mind function better and reduces stress and anxiety,” says psychiatrist Dr Lim Boon Leng of Dr BL Lim Centre for Psychological Wellness.

“It also boosts confidence and, because it’s time away from studying, is a good way to relax.”

Adequate sleep and time for hobbies are also useful strategies to overcome exam pressure. When your kid gets back to revising, he’ll be able to concentrate better and retain more information.

But, don’t wait until the last minute to make sure your child is getting enough sleep or exercise or taking regular breaks from studying.

“It’s difficult to address a child’s anxiety right before the exams, so these positive lifestyle habits should already be in place,” Dr Lim adds.

Help him structure his time before the exams

To reduce your child’s panic about not having enough time for revision, teach him how to structure his time from as early in the year as possible, says clinical psychologist Carol Balhetchet.

“This will help him see that he does, in fact, have a lot of time to revise for his exams, and in turn, this will build his confidence and keep his anxiety at bay.

“Make sure he uses this time wisely, too, so he’s not cramming for his exams at the eleventh hour. For example, remind him to give himself little tests every now and again, give him practice papers, and so on.

“The better prepared he is, the less overwhelmed he will feel during the exam period.”

Focus on the learning process, not the outcome

Remind your child that the purpose of his education is to learn and to challenge himself. Tell him that as long as he’s worked hard, he’s succeeded, Dr Lim says.

Too many parents focus on exam results and this is how many kids develop anxiety about how they will fare – they may worry about being punished or getting into a “bad” school if they don’t perform well.

“In addition, you should drive home the message that doing his best is what really counts,” adds Freda Sutanto, an educational and developmental psychologist at Kaleidoscope Therapy Centre.

“Let him know that you’re happy as long as he has put in his best effort, remind him that you’re on this journey with him and express your unconditional support.”

Don’t criticise, threaten or get upset with your kid – this will only add to his emotional burden. And Carol advises you to be calm during the exam period because children absorb their parents’ stress quite easily.

Too many parents focus on exam results and this is how many kids develop anxiety about how they will fare. 

Come up with an “exam survival” plan

Knowing how to deal with his biggest exam fears may help your child feel less anxious, says Freda.

For example, if he’s worried that he will stammer or mispronounce certain words during an oral exam, discuss how he can prevent it from happening or what to do if it happens.

If it’s a written exam and he’s worried that he’ll get stuck on a difficult question and run out of time to finish the paper, tell him to allocate a certain amount of time to each question and to move on if he can’t complete that question in time.

“It’s important to address this catastrophic thinking and help him feel more confident,” Freda says.

“That’s why your child should learn how to confront and minimise his fears, and to have solutions to whatever might be causing his anxiety.”

Try visualisation and breathing techniques

Freda says to remind your child not to feed off his classmates’ nervous energy while waiting for an exam to start, as this may increase his anxiety.

“Teach him to visualise more helpful scenarios instead, ones in which he is calm and in control.”

Deep breathing, meditation and other mindfulness techniques may help your kid focus more on the present and shift his attention away from whatever fear and anxiety he’s experiencing. They may also put him in a more relaxed state.

However, Dr Lim says that such techniques require a fair bit of practice to be useful, so you may want to get your child started on them several months before the exams.

Freda offers one breathing technique that may help ease your child’s anxiety instantly: “To help him stay focused and prevent a panicky episode, get him to hold his fingers up on one hand.

“Tell him to imagine that his fingers are mountains and ask him to breathe in deeply while looking at his fingers. Then, as he exhales, tell him to slowly close his fingers down on his palm until the ‘mountains’ disappear.” 

Take it easy right before the exam

The night before the big exam, spend about 30 minutes with your child, just reading or talking. Freda says that your kid is likely feeling pressured and full of adrenaline, so this downtime will help settle his emotions. The morning of the exam, she suggests going through the main points or any tricky parts he may not feel so confident about. This will benefit his emotional state more than trying to memorise or cram in facts, and will likely help him walk into the school feeling more confident. 

Are you stressing your kid without knowing it?

It’s possible that your words or actions may unknowingly be adding to his anxiety.

YOU COMPARE HIM TO OTHER KIDS, like his classmates, siblings or cousins who have already done those exams or are of the same age.

Junior may pick up on those comparisons – no matter how subtle – and feel that he needs to beat the other kids’ scores, says Freda Sutanto, an educational and developmental psychologist.


Clinical psychologist Carol Balhetchet advises you to monitor your language and tone, and not to show any fear when discussing the exams with your child.

If you do feel stressed, talk to your spouse rather than unload your emotions on your child.


Freda says that respectful communication is important. Otherwise, your child may feel that he’s only studying to make you happy and you may come up against some resistance.


Threats of punishment only serve to increase his anxiety, says psychiatrist Dr Lim Boon Leng.